J. Mark Price
I am docking this film one full star for pacing problems which weigh the story down and cause it to peak too early. At least 25 minutes could be comfortably shorn from the celluloid, a few screws tightened, and you would have on your hands an Oscar nominee for best picture of the year.
That is, however, the last negative comment you are going to read here, because what you do have is a very good film deserving at least a Best Actor nod to Robert Duvall and possibly a nomination for Best Screenplay as well, written, again, by Duvall.
In fact, Duvall not only wrote an excellent script and turns in one of the finest acting performances of his distinguished career, he also directed, executive produced and partially financed this gem, a project in the works for nearly ten years.
This is the Duvall that won a Best Actor Oscar for the powerful Tender Mercies and gave life to the Corleones' consigliere, Tom Hagen, in the first two Godfather films. This is the Duvall that captured an Oscar nomination for his supporting work in Apocalypse Now.
The acting is excellent, and the movie, set in Texas and Louisiana, is hugely atmospheric. The film has a powerful rhythm all its own, at times reverberating so strongly through the characters that you can almost get up and dance with them.
The Apostle centers around a devout Pentecostal preacher in Texas. It follows his trail when he is forced out of town after committing a tremendous sin in both the eyes of the church and the law. We watch Duvall's evangelist, E. F. "Sonny" Dewey, bestow upon himself the title of "Apostle" and take his new identity to a new place, where his charismatic preaching and utter devotion to God instantly endear him to the people of his new town.
We see the Apostle successfully renovate an old church and turn a tiny congregation into a huge one. We see him try to save souls and revel in the success of the thing he loves most, preaching. But we know all along that the demons born of his earlier sin, both in terms of its real-life repercussions and the guilt that eats away at his mostly decent heart, will eventually catch up with him.
What Duvall is exploring here actually has little to do with religion. At this film's heart is a realistic study of humanity, of how people can never truly be painted in blacks and whites or labeled good or bad. Like life itself, people's personalities are full of interesting contradictions and, unfortunately, are not always equipped to make the choices they would like.
And what better character to delve into the deepest realms of personal conflict and contradiction than a man of the cloth? A real man of the cloth, one who truly loves God and his church and means every word he passionately preaches. After all, preachers are subject to the same biological and psychological processes that sometimes cause the strongest, best people to falter.
Duvall injects the Apostle with a few of these characteristics early on in the film; we see capacity for anger, adultery and brutal violence almost immediately. The contradiction lies in the fact that the Apostle is a good person by many standards who deeply loves God, his wife, his children and his congregation and is loved greatly in return.
Duvall's scenes in the pulpit are spectacular, and when his parishioners dance, sing and shout in the aisles you fully believe in the Apostle's power of spiritual arousal. He does an excellent job of exposing the character's contradictions: you can never fully root for him, but you don't really want to see him fall.
Billy Bob Thornton returns a cameo favor here. (Duvall appeared in last year's excellent Sling Blade, written, starring and directed by Thornton.) As with nearly every scene he steps into, Thornton steals the spotlight for a few moments. He is solid and affecting as a narrow-minded, prejudiced troublemaker, a role which nobody plays better.
Even Farrah Fawcett threatens us with some credible acting as the unhappy wife of the Apostle.
The film's church scenes were shot using mostly non-actors from small, surrounding towns in an effort to create maximum authenticity. This works surprisingly well. The film is steeped in southern religious mysticism and you can feel the emotion pouring through the revivals like waves on a hurricane-torn ocean.
You will realize ten minutes into The Apostle that there can be no simple, neatly packaged solution to his predicament. That is because, quite simply, his predicament directly reflects real life and the gray areas in all of us.
Landmark River Oaks